Expats recall Grandfather Frost and St. Nicholas

Tatiana Pavlenko said that Christmas in Russia is not as big a celebration as New Year's Day.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Tatiana Pavlenko said that Christmas in Russia is not as big a celebration as New Year's Day.

Memories of childhood holidays are often the most enduring. A native of Luxembourg who now makes her home in West Tisbury and a Russian who now lives in Oak Bluffs recently shared recollections of their Old World traditions with The Times.

Artist Marie-Louise Rouff of West Tisbury was born and raised in Luxembourg, a tiny country between Belgium and Germany with strong identification with both German and French culture. Though she has been living in the United States for 50 years, Ms. Rouff, who returns to her homeland occasionally, still has fond memories of her early years.

She recalls that during her childhood, Christmas Eve was reserved for honoring the religious significance of the day. The secular rituals took place earlier in the month. Families in this largely Catholic country traditionally attend midnight mass on the 24th and then break a day-long fast with a big meal that would include goose with apple stuffing and bouche de Noel — yule log.

On Christmas day “Nothing happened. You slept late, You would just hang around and read,” Ms. Rouff said.

“We would never expect gifts on Christmas Eve. We had already gotten gifts. The American tradition comes more from England.”

The gift giving holiday in Luxembourg is St. Nicholas Day, December 6. “When you went to bed at night on December 5, you set the dining room table with plates and put some hay under the table for St. Nick’s donkey,” said Ms. Rouff. “In the morning the plates would be full of sweets.”

The goodies, according to Ms. Rouff, would include chocolates and oranges, a rare delicacy in Luxembourg in her day. Candy was an uncommon treat, too. “A sweet was special, not like today,” she recalled.

Also on the plates would be stocking stuffer type gifts like school supplies. Big gifts would be underneath the table.

Ms. Rouff explained the significance of the December 6 holiday. “St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children. Apparently he was a bishop who risked his life to save some children.” she said. “He’s represented with a bishop’s miter and a staff riding on a donkey. He was attended by a guy who was really dark and scary. If you hadn’t been good he would leave you a switch.”

Luxembourgers set up Christmas trees, but not in time for the presents. The tree is decorated on Christmas eve with a certain amount of ceremony. Ms. Rouff recalled that her family decorated with candles which had to be placed carefully on a relatively sparse tree. They used oranges to weigh down the branches, thereby providing more space for the candle flames.

The tree stayed up until the 6th of January — the Epiphany, which celebrates the visitation of the wise men. On that day, a special cake with a bean baked into it was served. “Whoever got the piece with the bean was the king and got a crown,” said Ms. Rouff.

“To my mind what was special about Christmas was the smells,” said Ms. Rouff, “The tree always smelled so delicious. The candle wax, the cooking. The smells were wonderful.”

Tatiana Pavlenko of Oak Bluffs relocated from European Russia eight years ago. Like Ms. Rouff, she notes that in her native country, Christmas day is not surrounded with the trappings we associate it with. “In general, Christmas is not a big holiday in Russia. Our big holiday is New Year’s Day,” she said.

Because the Russian Orthodox church uses the old Julian calendar for religious celebration days, Christmas actually falls on January 7. “Only in 1992 was it legal to celebrate Christmas again,” said Ms. Pavlenko, referring to the dissolution of the USSR. However, Christmas Eve is reserved for a religious celebration. “We don’t get any presents. It’s all about family and religion. About the harvest next year. We get the presents for New Year’s.”

On Russian Christmas Eve a midnight mass is held until four in the morning. “You bring all the food to the church to be blessed,” said Ms. Pavlenko. “Usually there’s a big lent right before Christmas. It’s over with the first star in the sky.” Generally, the post-Christmas mass meal will be meat-free, with fish and vegetable dishes popular alternatives.

“As a tradition in my family we always make sure we have 12 dishes on the table,” Ms. Pavlenko said. “The guests share a porridge-like dish called kuffia, made with honey, poppyseeds, and nuts. Everybody has a spoonful and then you take a spoon and throw it to the ceiling. If it sticks to the ceiling it’s going to be a great harvest. Christmas is like a new beginning. People hope for a better year.”

Those, like Ms. Pavlenko’s family, who do not adhere to a strictly religious celebration, often dress up and go door to door, entertaining their neighbors. Although the costumes can include any type of dress up, Ms. Pavlenko notes that people often choose to represent the twelve different signs of the Chinese horoscope. Games and predictions for the future are also popular activities.

New Year’s is celebrated on January 13. The celebration starts one hour before midnight with a feast. “We sleep in the evening, then eat and drink all night long,” said Ms. Pavlenko. “At 11 pm we do the toast. We talk about what we’d like to forget and give up and what we want to take into the new year. At midnight the whole country watches the speech of the president. You make a wish and have a toast.”

People enjoy various forms of entertainment all night with the party finishing up with dessert in the morning. Kids often dress up on New Year’s as well as Christmas. Grandfather Frost brings presents which are exchanged in the morning. “You have to do something to get a gift,” said Ms. Pavlenko, “Kids have to tell a poem or sing a song or do the chicken dance. For adults we do the same.”

Ms. Pavlenko still honors Russian New Year’s Eve with a big party. She invites Russian as well as American friends, but notes that the non-Russians weren’t initially accustomed to the late night time frame. “The first time we did it all my American friends were full. They had already eaten,” she said. The celebration has been shortened a bit because, unlike in her homeland, Ms. Pavlenko and her friends usually have to work the next day. However, January 13 will fall on a Sunday this time around. Pass the vodka!